A short history of the Kampot Traditional Music School as written by the school’s founder,
Ms. Catherine Geach

Italy, 17 January 2013

In 1991, I began teaching violin in the Western music department of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, after having graduated as a violinist from the Royal Academy of Music in London; and having already visited Cambodia in 1990 to do a report on the violation of human rights by the Khmer Rouge.

At the time of teaching at the University of Fine Arts, I began learning Khmer instruments such as the Tro Sau Toch’ and developed a great interest in traditional music and felt deeply for my Cambodian colleagues in the traditional music department, for their struggle in trying to carry on their traditions in the face of poverty and lack of real support. Many traditional music students could not afford to come to school daily, because they had to help earn money for their parents. From here in 1993 was born a scholarship program, sponsored by the British Embassy to enable the traditional music students to attend school daily, instead of having to go out and work. Although the program was successful, I felt it did not really address a more profound need to concentrate specifically on the preservation and continuation of traditional Khmer music.

During this period with some of my Cambodian colleagues from the traditional music department we went as volunteers to the then Maryknoll sponsored rehabilitation program at Kean Klang. At the time the bridge across the river was still broken since the time the Khmer Rouge blew it up in 1975. I would go by bicycle and then by boat across the river and then by bicycle again to reach the rehabilitation centre. It is here that I learned the importance and value of music to people who had suffered great physical injury and psychological trauma. I taught the Tro Sau Toch’ instrument (a two stringed instrument played using a bow) to former soldiers who had lost their eyes, fingers and legs to mines and shrapnel explosion. Many of these men were angry and depressed, but through music I witnessed a transformation of joy and satisfaction on their faces.

It is a combination of these two experiences together with the experience of living in a very poor village outside Phnom Penh and being very moved by the hardship and poverty both physical and psychological of the inhabitants of the village, that inspired me to found and build a school for the conservation of Traditional Khmer music at the same time as caring for the most vulnerable children in society.

 

At the time of building the school in 1994, Kampot was often under siege from the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who had their strong-hold in Phnom Vor. Many inhabitants of the surrounding districts suffered continual attacks and had to build trenches to protect themselves from constant fire and mortar. Yet Kampot before the war had once been an important centre not only for tourism but also for the arts and a most beautiful natural reserve, yet in the early 1990’s there were very few NGO’s working there. Gaining permission from the Supreme National Council to found a Cambodian NGO, (Khmer Cultural Development Institute) and then to use land donated by the Mayor of Kampot and the Ministry of Culture, to build the school, “The Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned, Vulnerable and Disabled Children.” I found funding from the Canada Fund, the British Embassy and the Embassy of Japan to build three main buildings. Then from Terre des Hommes Netherlands, funds to teach and board vulnerable children from the surrounding community. A 4th building, a music and ballet hall with a research library, was built in 2002 with funds donated by the Japanese Government.

Through the tuition of traditional Pin Peat music by one of the last great masters, the late Huot’ Toch’, children learned how to play different instruments, whilst also receiving an academic education. Gradually children were transformed from being shy, traumatized and closed, to being open and happier, they also felt a sense of achievement and were proud of their abilities. This practice of using music and dance as a form of both therapy and vocational training continues today and hundreds of children from the local community and surrounding district have been able to benefit from the school’s existence.

The children from 1994, now grown up, and today include professional musicians, teachers, shop-owners, whilst some have worked with the Ministry of Culture and others have won scholarships abroad. As older children graduate then new, small children enter to study and enjoy their traditional culture.

Today the school has expanded considerably since 1994. As well as Pin Peat, Mahori and Plein Ka music, it teaches classical Cambodian ballet, folk dance and the ancient and rare form of Yike theatre. Teachers are highly qualified and come from the National Theatre or the Royal University of Fine Arts. Students also attend local state schools from primary school level to high school. There are also older students on a transition program who attend University. The school works closely with the Ministry of Social Action, Education and Culture.